The History of Laurel
Laurel historically has benefited from its favorable location. Located on the Patuxent River fall line, it was an early Native American site, and later a source for water power. The Snowdens, English settlers arriving in the late 18th century, built a grist mill in 1811, and by 1824 a small cotton mill.
Arrival of the B&O Railroad in 1835 transformed Laurel Factory, as the community was called. The mill, located at one end of what would become Laurel’s Main Street, imported raw materials and shipped finished cotton duck to Baltimore. The Patuxent Manufacturing Company constructed fifty blocks of two-story stone and brick millworker houses, many of which are still standing. One of these is now the home of the Laurel Historical Society and The Laurel Museum.
The Civil War divided Laurel. During the war, Laurel Station (as the area by the rail line was then called) was occupied by Union troops guarding key river crossing along what was the only rail connection between the North and Washington, D.C.
A Growing Suburban Community
By the late 19th century Laurel was evolving into an early suburban community, with excellent transportation and access to both Washington and Baltimore. The Maryland General Assembly approved the town’s push for incorporation April 4, 1870. On June 14, 1875, Laurel Factory became simply “Laurel.” Originally a Commissioner form of government, it became a Mayor and Council with wards in 1890. The mill, which closed during much of the Civil War reopened, closed, was sold, and closed and reopened again during the remainder of the 19th century. By 1914 The main cotton mill had closed for good and its equipment was auctioned off.
Many Prince George’s County Firsts
Laurel is the site of many Prince George’s County firsts, including the first public library, first public high school, and first national bank. Laurel can also boast of Prince George’s County’s oldest continuously operating volunteer fire department.
Laurel’s African American Community
Like the rest of Prince George’s County, Laurel was first a slaveholding, and then a segregated community. Prior to the Civil War, local residents and plantation owners, owned slaves. The town also had a free black population. After the war, there were also thriving African American communities surrounding the town, including Hall Town and Rossville. In town the Grove, the area to which Black residents were restricted in the 1800s, became the center of the African American Community. St. Mark’s United Methodist Church was constructed there in 1890. The Laurel Colored School (School No. 2), was constructed in 1884. Together they became the nucleus of the black community of Laurel. A second school, the Laurel Grove School just off Eighth Street operated until 1962. Laurel’s schools began to slowly integrate in 1955. Laurel’s African American community has celebrated its history for more than 100 years, and the town still celebrates with an Emancipation Day Parade.
Laurel in the 20th Century
The twentieth century cemented Laurel’s place as an independent small town that also served as a suburb to the growing Capital of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Although incorporated Laurel is only in Prince George’s County, outlying developments extend into Anne Arundel and Howard Counties.
During World War I, the empty cotton mill became a staging ground and residence for soldiers from Ft. Meade, and soldiers were stationed at the nearby Laurel Race Track. Laurel men (and women) also served in the war, and a number died. A young Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie spent time living in Laurel during his Ft. Meade posting. During the depression years of the 1930’s, Laurel residents shared many of the country’s hardships.
Laurel’s proximity to Ft. Meade meant it was deeply involved in war-time activities during WWII. Many Laurel residents fought abroad, including several who lost their lives.
The town grew rapidly after the War, and Laurel’s proximity to Washington D.C. made it particularly appealing. From a population of 2,500 in 1930, by 1940 it was 2823, 4482 in 1950, and by 1960, 8503. By 1990, the population had grown to 19,438. In 1960, more than 50% of the population worked for the federal government.
The national political eye was on Laurel on May 15, 1972. Governor George Wallace, campaigning as an Independent, was shot and paralyzed by Arthur Bremer.
During the 1980’s -1990’s, Laurel continued to grow and expand. Patuxent Place revitalized Main Street. The city expanded its borders to the Wellington Development. Laurel Lakes shopping center disappeared, to reemerge with new stores.
History again touched Laurel as it entered the current Millennium. Several of the 9/11 hijackers stayed locally prior to the events on 9/11/2001.
More than 25,000 people now live in Laurel, and the City has again expanded its boundaries to include the Konterra community.
Laurel’s increasing diversity has brought it a rich community of new residents, and a variety of new restaurants, shops and commercial ventures. An award-winning new library fills the information needs of today’s residents. The new Towne Centre at Laurel has replaced the Laurel Mall. Laurel’s Historic District preserves the charms of the earlier town, and its historic Phelps Mansion was lovingly restored as Laurel Manor House Bed and Breakfast- Prince George’s County’s first B&B.
Edited and expanded version of the History of Laurel from the Laurel Historical Society Website: www.laurelhistoricalsociety.org.